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Primary Sources & Archives: How to Use Archives

What is a Finding Aid?

A Finding Aid is a document that provides a description of the contents of an archival collection.

The finding aid includes a narrative overview of the collection, with a listing of materials by box, folder, or item.  It is expected to assist the researcher in determining whether or not the collection meets his or her research needs.  Finding aids vary widely with some stopping at the box level and others which may include a description of every item in every folder in every box.

To understand all the elements of a finding aid, click HERE to see an annotated finding aid from an archival collection at Purdue University.

What to expect when you visit an archives

Archival materials are unique and must preserved.  As a result, researchers must follow protocol when requested materials.  Here are some of the rules you might encounter at an archives.

  • All backpacks, bags, and coats must be checked.
  • Laptops, paper, and pencils are usually permitted.
  • Cameras are usually permitted.
  • Photocopies and scans may be ordered.
  • Researchers are given one box or folder at a time.  You must be careful to keep items in exactly the order they were given to you.
  • Items may never be checked-out and may never leave the archives for any reason.